Monday, March 7, 2011

A Few Things About Bullying

My posts this week are going to be about bullying. One large nationwide study of over 15,000 kids in 6th-10th grade indicated that about 10% of children report being bullied. Another 6% report both being bullied AND bullying others. And another 13% report bullying others but not being victims of it themselves.

It's a major international public health issue and has become even more prominent in recent years, with the tragic suicides of several kids who were plagued by bullying, including, Brandon Myers, Megan Meiers, and Phoebe Prince, whose death last year led to anti-bullying legislation in Massachusetts and serious charges against the kids who bullied her.

Bullying has always existed. I have memories of being bullied and witnessing bullying as a child, and I'm sure many of you do as well. I think the reason so many are talking about it now are:
  1. the Internet and 24/7 news cycle means that, no matter where something occurs, the entire country knows about it in a matter of an hour or two, if that. Nothing is local anymore. And it's not just that everybody knows. Everybody is talking about it. And everybody has an opinion. So something like Phoebe Prince's death, which might have been a local event in the past, touches off a firestorm. (I think this phenomenon is both good and bad. But more on that another time)
  2. youth have new ways of bullying, so the same behavior is occuring, just in more places and in new forms. Cyberbullying has become a recognized problem.
Bullying is about dominance, a power imbalance. It takes a lot of forms, from verbal behaviors to rumors to physical or sexual intimidation and harm, to name a few.

Kids who are bullied exhibit more symptoms of depression than other kids and are at higher risk for suicide. Lots of studies have shown that. What we're not sure of--is there some other factor, like vulnerability to psychiatric problems, that could lead to both victimization and depression/suicide? If that makes no sense, click on Brandon's name at the top of this post. Regardless of whether bullying causes suicide in some kids, though, there's no doubt it's bad for kids.

Kids who bully are, apparently, also at higher risk for suicide. But, oddly, they tend to have higher than average self-esteem. They overestimate their own popularity. They have low empathy--they are less aware of how others feel than kids who don't engage in bullying. They are more likely to hang out with peers who bully.

There are gender differences. Boys are more likely to be both the perpetrators and victims of physical and overt verbal aggression. Girls tend to exhibit relational aggression rather than physical aggression, which means they are more likely to bully through social alliances and exclusion, gossip and rumors. It's more subtle, but no less vicious.

GLBTQ teens are FAR more likely to be bullied than their hetero peers. This deserves a post of its own, and it shall have one in the near future.

There are some effective interventions for bullying. But research shows that they don't come in the form of classroom discussions and role playing and that kind of thing. Effective interventions are school-wide, which means that zero-tolerance for bullying is ingrained in the culture of the school, all the way up to the top.

On Wednesday, I'll be touching on cyberbullying, and on Friday, I'll be discussing Hate List, by Jennifer Brown, where bullying is a major issue. Until then--thoughts on bullying? Is it covered accurately in YA? In the media? What do you know about it, and how do you feel about it?

And be sure to check out Lydia's always fascinating Medical Monday post and, if you're feeling overwhelmed and stretched too thin, definitely read Laura's Mental Health Monday post for today!


  1. Bullying doesn't necessarily stop after school either. It's generally more subtle for adults, but can still exist, even in the workplace.

  2. This is so scary now my daughter is in school. I can't imagine what those poor parents are going through. Thanks for this timely topic.

  3. Thanks for this discussion. I'm a middle school teacher and writer trying to do everything I can to head bullying off at the pass...reading books like Odd Girl Out, trying to listen to the students even when they think I'm intent on something else, making sure they know I'll listen if they want to talk. I can't wait to read your posts this week.

    Jess Lahey

  4. I agree with Matthew. It's sad, but I actually work in a school and sometimes the teachers can be a little "snippy" to one another. It feels like we're in middle school instead of teaching at a middle school. :(

  5. My 11 year has asperger's syndrome. His pediatrician warned me that my son would be at risk of being bullied. Fortunately it hasn't been an issue, and my son's social skills are much better than originally suspected. I still, though, worry about all of my kids, and we're constantly talking to them about it. Both to make sure they aren't victims and to make sure they aren't the ones doing the bullying.

  6. bullying is an issue close to my heart. actually, one of my wips deals closely with bullying (so this weeks posts will be EXTRA helpful!). unfortunately, the school system in our little town has a culture of bullying (even in the workplace)- and the adults don't really seem to care. i even witnessed a teacher bullying one of my sons.

    people around here say that my boys need to man up and fight back or just let it roll off their backs- like the fact that they are being bullied is their fault and not the bullies' fault. it's really frustrating. i have a couple coworkers whose children dropped out of high school due to bullying. it's a shame.

    as a kid i was a bully-fighter. which was strange because i was so completely shy- but whenever i would see bullying i would defend the bullied- whether with my fists or with words (even with my stutter)... that wasn't probably the best way to deal with it, but when the adults do nothing to stop it, someone has to, i guess.

    we try really hard to teach our sons to love everyone, whether they are different from them or whether they have bullied them. we also teach them that it is alright to defend themselves- but only as a last result. but i think you are very right, the only way to oust the majority of bullying is to change the culture of the school...

  7. This is a fascinating post--thanks for writing it. I also find it interesting that you are a psychologist/author, as I am, too (I'm a clinical psychologist who works mainly with university students). I wonder if that combo is common? My first book ('A Subtle Thing') delved into depression, and my second book (not yet published) is all about female bullying. Can't wait to read more of your stuff! : )

  8. A post near and dear to my heart. I was a victim of bullying mixed with racism and still have the scars. I think parents have an obligation to teach their kids about bullying and watch out for the subtle signs.
    Great post, Sarah.

  9. As always, thanks for the shout-out! ;)

    Being bullied is TOUGH! I went through it for years and still get a little skittish around people, LOL! (And looking back at it, what I went through wasn't nearly as bad as what some kids go through today.)

    It's rough out there, ain't it?

    I'm glad you're devoting some blog time to this topic.

  10. Interesting! I always thought the kid dishing it out needed help. It's bad stuff all around! I'm glad people are finally taking a closer look at this.

  11. hi miss sarah! wow this is tough stuff for sure. whats hard for me is seeing some one getting bullied and knowing if i try to be a help im gonna get it too or if i tell im gonna get thought of for being a tattler and get it for that too. right now im getting taught at home but i gotta tell you im pretty scared for going back where theres lots of kids cause of all i heard bout bullying. im pretty small and skinny and could get bullied real easy. ack!
    ...hugs from lenny

  12. It's such a tough subject! We all want to stop it, but the question has always been how? Hopefully as writers, we can have some positive influence on both the bullies and the victims to stop it.

  13. Bullying is a huge problem. I work in a middle school, and we have a 0-tolerance policy. But it still pops up.

  14. Great post, girl! Bullying affects almost every kid in some form. The ones who bully the most are often bullied by someone at home. It's that whole "the oppressed mimic the oppressor" thing. I see this a lot at my school. Kids text bully nonstop. It breaks my heart.

  15. It is hard when adults don't realize that teasing is a form of bullying and act like there is nothing they can do. My 9 year-old granddaughter has been teased because she likes Justin Bieber, the boys taunt her, pull on her clothes and when she talks to the adults on recess they tell her there is nothing they can do. Allowing it to go on simply encourages tolerance and lack of respect for different opinions. Great post!!

  16. My son's seventh grade teachers asked all the parents to keep their kids from signing up for Facebook on their 13th birthday. They state it is the worst form of bullying ever. Sad.